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Fortifying the Future

Fortifying the Future

Students in an Interior Architecture studio sponsored by the van Beuren Charitable Foundation envision preservation through change at historic Fort Adams in Newport, RI.

Interior Architecture students presented their interventions inside Newport, RI’s historic Fort Adams at the end of the spring semester.

Before collecting their diplomas on May 30, students in Interior Architecture’s graduate program in adaptive reuse honed their skills by designing innovative augmentations to Newport, RI’s historic Fort Adams, the largest coastal fortress in North America. The final project was undertaken as part of Breaching Fort Adams: Access and Change, a spring studio sponsored by the van Beuren Charitable Foundation (vBCF) and taught by Graduate Program Director Markus Berger and Critic Jonathan Bell.

As the fourth site in Newport selected for vBCF-funded design interventions, the Fort Adams project followed previous interventions focused on the Jane Pickens Theater & Event Center, the United Congregational Church and the historic neighborhood of Easton’s Point. “These projects stretch our imaginations and enlarge the conversation about how to reconcile preservation and change,” noted vBCF’s Executive Director Elizabeth Lynn at an end-of-semester exhibition in May. She spoke to a gathering of foundation board members, students, academics and Newport officials who had stepped out of the bright spring sunshine and into a chilly brick cavern at the base of the fort’s southern wall.

When students first visited the weatherworn, 215-year-old seaside edifice in January, they navigated sub-zero temperatures, whipping winds and three feet of snow in order to gather the data they needed. Youjin (Chloe) Joung MA 15 shivers a little just thinking of it. She pities the military personnel and their families who wintered inside the massive fort and never actually faced an attack.

Joung’s proposal—Rescale the Fort: Interaction in Human Scale—is meant to “invoke memories of the fort’s past and accommodate new programs suitable for post-military occupancy.” Focusing on the west wall of the fort, she proposes transforming its cavernous interior into a more intimate space that would take advantage of the gorgeous views and perform double duty as a restaurant and gallery space.

When he drew up plans for a modern-day corporate retreat on the site, Miguel Gumila MA 15 thought about the camaraderie and teamwork that united soldiers stationed at the fort. His soft intervention—which is easy to install and then dismantle—takes advantage of the strong existing fortress walls by using stackable steel modules that would be transported in shipping containers and hooked onto the walls with a crane. “The intervention,” notes Berger, “plays on the narrative of the fort itself, which was also constructed in a modular way and transported in chunks.”

At an open critique in early May, students presented their projects to a cadre of visiting critics including Lynn, Fort Adams Trust Executive Director Rick Nagel, architect and former RISD faculty member Heinrich Hermann and Ijlal Muzaffar, an assistant professor in RISD’s History of Art + Visual Culture department. Gumila noted that his plans for a corporate retreat would preserve the site’s bay views with perforated metal panels while allowing able-bodied visitors to enter the space via steep exterior stairs that would highlight the sheer height and impenetrability of the fortress.

“I’m taken with the materials you used,” noted Hermann. But Muzaffar worried that the stairs would take away from the intensity of the experience and noted that, “it would be even better if visitors had to physically climb the wall using ropes.”

Other students in the class proposed repurposing the fort as a guesthouse where visitors could reflect on its past, a workshop for visiting designers and a home to sunken gardens and cafés. As Bell notes, “They began by analyzing and testing ideas in a preparatory seminar taught by Interior Architecture Critic Yugon Kim that provided a deep understanding of the fort and its history.”

“Our shared goal,” Anthony Kho MA 15 explained to the appreciative crowd at the final presentation, “was to use quiet and modern materials that contrast with the original stone—to celebrate the old by creating the new.”

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